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The Year in Movies (2015)

Based upon the movies I’ve seen this year, and I have not seen the full slate of all 2015 movies released in the U.S., I think Steve Jobs is the best picture, though I can think of six other motion pictures that arguably deserve to be called the year’s best movie: Aloha, Carol, Cinderella, Spotlight, Brooklyn and The Walk. (Click or touch bold type movie titles, as ever on this blog, to read my reviews of each movie).

I’m categorizing this year’s movies, most of which I reviewed, in three sections: Excellent, good or very good and not good. Generally, as most readers know, I try to see pictures that I have reason to believe I might enjoy. I avoid films, though there are exceptions, that I have reason to think I might find repulsive, such as horror, Tarantino or mob/thug/gang movies. That said, here’s a breakdown of this year’s films.

Not Good

Macbeth-Poster-Michael-Fassbender-Character-PosterMacbeth is a curiosity driven more by an apparent desire to revise or reconfigure Shakespeare’s classic play. Monkey Kingdom has too little to do with monkeys. Avengers: Age of Ultron is obnoxious and overblown. Mad Max: Fury Road is blood pornography posing as meaningful. Tomorrowland bastardized Walt Disney’s Disneyland as The Peanuts Movie bastardized the comic strip by Charles M. Schulz and Mr. Holmes bastardized Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Inside Out is jumbled, manic and confused. I did find aspects about each of these movies to appreciate. But these are some of what I think are 2015’s worst films.

Good or Very Good

In the upper mid-range, and measurably better, are several movies, three of which I did not review. The taut Sicario is engrossing though it’s not my type of movie. Grandma feels revolutionary, and, even though it isn’t, it is an astute social commentary with strong performances and a radical idea at the center. Suffragette stands out for its depiction of woman as activist and touches of great storytelling in Abi Morgan’s screenplay, complemented by Alexandre Desplat‘s musical score. I thoroughly enjoyed Disney’s The Good Dinosaur and want to see it again. The Martian is every bit as gripping and life-affirming as has been advertised. Truth and Bridge of Spies are very well made and the former should not be dismissed while the latter must be judged more seriously for its omissions. The Intern with Robert De Niro is predictable and enjoyable, as predictable movies often are, and it’s a decent, wholesome movie which is also thoughtful, as Nancy Meyers movies usually are. McFarland USA with Kevin Costner is all over the map yet still positive. San Andreas is both thrilling and over the top and it is redeemed by its family-themed story of strength in the face of disaster. Love & Mercy is brilliant but dark. So is the expressive documentary Amy, which ought to be seen by anyone affected by addiction. Ant-Man is a pleasant and diversionary Marvel Entertainment surprise. She’s Funny That Way is a flawed but welcome return for filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, whom I tried every which way to interview about the movie without success. No Escape with Owen Wilson is also flawed but it’s a thoroughly exciting and timely thriller about an American family caught in a foreign land under an attack by savages with hatred for Westerners. The Outrageous Sophie Tucker is perfectly fabulous documentary; audiences will learn and be entertained. Ex Machina, like Her, is a thoughtful examination in science fiction. And this weekend’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a nice piece of escapism.

Excellent

AlohaposterAmong the year’s best pictures, Cameron Crowe’s maligned Aloha is insightful and simply not obvious. I found this movie, which needs no defense against mindless, baseless attacks, very moving and not in a Hollywood way. I like how Mr. Crowe integrates classic and modern ideas and pivots around each main character to create the central theme, which is conveyed in its title. This is a refreshing movie, yet it challenges the audience to think. The wistful, rational Aloha makes me want to see every Cameron Crowe movie all over again. Carol is also insightful amid its twists and subtle plot points. Both leading actresses are excellent and its lesbianism, its forbidden love, is universally themed in the hands of Todd Haynes, who depicts the script intelligently. This is an easy movie to notice for its production values and striking designs. But every shade of lipstick, every erotic shot, every fold of each costume serves a distinctive purpose to dramatize what it’s like to have to hide in modern times. Whether you’re a lesbian, but especially if you’re gay, unusual or some type of infidel, it’s like watching moving postcards from a subversive road map to happiness.

Until the fall and winter season, which Harvey Weinstein rightly observed is post-loaded with adult-themed films as awards bait, I couldn’t stop raving about Disney’s lush, romantic and glamorous Cinderella, which director Kenneth Branagh seemed to ditch and dismiss as light and unimportant in the wake of feminist controversy. Maybe it is light, and I think it’s sad that light and serious are considered incompatible, but some of the best movies are (see the 1940s) and this movie is striking, thanks also to the musical score. Also read my review of the movie’s Blu-Ray edition.

These last four films are 2015’s essentials. These and the forementioned make 2015 a year like 2005 and other outstanding years such as 1939, 1945 and 1967, that marks a great time in motion pictures. Spotlight is excellent because, while it is a movie about rationality expressed through a depiction of journalism, rather than romanticize today’s journalist, it judges, scolds and holds him accountable to the facts of reality. It is being praised by some in my quarters as though its reporters and editors are heroes and there’s a sense in which they are. But there’s a sense in which it is too late for them to be heroes; they are and chose to be complicit and awaken only when the boss, an outsider, simply asks them to do their jobs. Spotlight operates on a small scale, not on a grand scale, which puts its greatness in focused perspective.

On the other hand, Brooklyn and The Walk are unabasedly large, grand and distinctly American. That they both depict newcomers, too, specifically an Irishwoman and a Frenchman, who very matter-of-factly and selfishly wish to pursue happiness in New York City, is fitting for 2015’s best pictures. Brooklyn has a jarring middle if you think too much about it, which I did, though it’s probably less jarring than it was for me. But it is rooted in the character’s, and the 20th century immigrant’s, perspective and it powers the movie’s remarkably satisfying conclusion. The more I think about Brooklyn, and I do think about Brooklyn, the more I think its brilliance lies in its individualism with a woman, for a change, as the individualist. Whatever the title, whatever the romance, this picture skillfully dramatizes a person who is alone in every sense and comes to stand and walk mightily on her own.

So does The Walk, which is also for the individualist. I really can’t add more to my review but I will say that this movie is the most exhilarating cinematic experience I’ve ever had. In a nation which once stood for individualism, The Walk dares the audience to think, stand and walk alone, to risk everything for, in Kipling’s verse, one turn of pitch and toss, but only after exercising great thought and precision and with an aim to live large—larger than life itself. That it recreates the World Trade Center, and resurrects the world’s tallest skyline, makes The Walk more breathtaking.

SteveJobsPosterBut Steve Jobs is 2015’s best movie because it succeeds and thrills on every level and rises to match the intellect of its subject, who was a genius. In three powerful acts, this misunderstood movie, written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle, depicts the great mind in all its glory. Somehow, some people mistake this for showing a hero with feet of clay. I dissent. Part of its ingeniousness is in daring to show the whole man, as conceived by the filmmakers, not as conceived by the biographer whose book is the film’s basis, which requires a certain approach that telescopes his life and career. It’s a mistake to think that this precludes an admiring portrait of Steve Jobs (read what I wrote when he died here if you doubt my admiration) just because it doesn’t depict his happiest years. On the contrary, without spoiling the movie, it ends with an upward arc, with the new beginning, not the end. To place this man in the context of these three product introductions, with these three outcomes, and in the scope of this single life, is to grasp what it means to live in accordance with reality. Steve Jobs is an empowering movie because, like Steve Jobs, it represents man at his best; one who chooses to think for himself, fusing form with function and who, whatever his mistakes and messes, strives to see both sides and be whole while he never lets go.

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

SWTFAPosterThe new, heavily hyped and highly anticipated Star Wars movie is good if you like science fiction/fantasy/mythology stories. This entry in the series created by George Lucas, the first installment since the Walt Disney Studios bought his Lucasfilm, Ltd., is neither as overblown as the 1999-2005 trilogy nor as thrilling as the original 1977-1983 trilogy. Star Wars: The Force Awakens marks a solid return to form.

It’s far from the year’s best or worst picture and it is squarely in the better half, even better if this is your sort of movie. In retrospect, I have problems with the whole series but I can also take them as they are. The Phantom Menace pod racing was agonizing for me, like watching an aimless video game, and I disliked Jar Jar as much as anyone else who did, though I liked Darth Maul’s purposefulness and the strokes of anti-fascist romanticism in Attack of the Clones. I was excited as a youth for the original pictures. But Star Wars was always about Luke Skywalker to me, and I grew progressively less interested in (and more tired of) the dark, death-premised mysticism that climaxed with the last release, Revenge of the Sith. So, that’s my context.

Returning to the strong, idealistic protagonist, Force Awakens, directed by J.J. Abrams (Super 8, Star Trek) and written by Abrams with Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, The Bodyguard) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3, Little Miss Sunshine, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), establishes values at stake from the start. There’s a lot to like, and enough of the other to take notice, but this seventh Star Wars movie is primarily a good piece of escapism.

Retracing familiar ground, besides the returning cast members, the action follows two men and a lady, with a droid, various aliens and three main villains in the Dark Side’s hierarchy, just as in the 1977 original’s trio of the governor, Vader and the Emperor. A jaunty resistance pilot (Ex Machina‘s Oscar Isaac), a spirited scavenger (Daisy Ridley) and a rogue stormtrooper (John Boyega) form the new trio; one’s trying to save the galaxy, another’s trying to find new love, and the other’s trying to figure out the meaning of life, or something like that.

They are each appealing and affable, in a way, though each character is limited, too. The scrappy, self-made female, named Rey, reminds me of Keira Knightley and isn’t as sharp and sophisticated as Princess Leia. The man she’s paired with, Boyega’s character, Finn, breaks free from the bad guys but he’s not provided with much of an impetus, let alone a deeper motivation. Boyega mugs for the camera—at times, his performance seems entirely composed of facial expressions—and dominates The Force Awakens. Isaac’s secondary character is more interesting, but this is part of a series, so time will tell. As it is, however, I wanted to know why the stormtrooper breaks away from his “reconditioning” despite showing no signs of non-conformity.

At least Finn, like the scavenger character, has that original spirit of Star Wars‘ can-do Americanism. Gothic, youthful nihilism is represented by a baddie in a hoodie played by Adam Driver, who steals every scene in the most engaging performance as one of the series’ many masked villians. As the trio strives to rise up against the First Order—an Empire offshoot bent on galactic destruction—with the help of a rolling, adorable droid, Driver’s hooded menace taunts, teases and tromps around spreading his bad mood everywhere he goes. It won’t be hard to see what he’s got coming and Driver makes it stick.

Series regulars return one by one, including favorite machines and characters, with seamless plot progression amid implausible scenes, such as a pivotal getaway going too quickly and certain obvious contrivances. The action-packed fight and space battleship scenes are exciting, if nothing you haven’t already seen, and the desert/winter planet contrasts work well. It’s a fantasy, so things do get silly here and there, with a bald-headed supervillain (Andy Serkis) reminding me comically of the wizard of Oz, but anyone invested in Star Wars will want very much to know what happens. This includes subplots with Leia (Carrie Fisher), now a military general, Han (Harrison Ford) and his buddy Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and, possibly, Luke Skywalker, though I don’t dare say more about him because apparently it’s supposed to be a big secret.

For all the changes—women are everywhere now, unlike in the originals—The Force Awakens is almost like a remake of the original Star Wars, which became A New Hope in Lucasfilm’s episodic parlance, and the action follows the same general trajectory. There are downtimes, scenes of wondering about one’s past, the guy not being ‘good enough’ for the girl, strange, surly aliens, bar scenes, and a heartwarming character apparently voiced by Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) whom I kept thinking of as a kind of younger, Mrs. Yoda but that’s probably just my inclination. But it’s easy to assess a movie that’s part of an iconic series in terms of this and that and lose sight of the whole movie and there is a point to The Force Awakens, even if it’s merely that the good can triumph only when good people believe that it’s possible.

The occasionally snappy line, the sweep, the sense of life—with any luck, if the writers keep up the Americanism, “I have an idea about that” may come to replace the old Han Solo saying—it’s all here, with the music, stars and landscapes. That and a timely nod to the evildoers’ fascism, neatly located in a Nazi-like setting that looks a lot like Bavaria, make it sort of fun to be in this domain again, and this probably owes, at least in major part, to the vision of Lucasfilm’s boss Kathleen Kennedy Marshall.

Audiences shouldn’t expect more than another serial about good versus evil with simple characters that cumulatively represent the underdog that’s always two steps behind. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a clever and pleasant diversion about having faith that the good is possible.

Movie Review: Brooklyn

BrooklynPosterWatching the unreservedly, nostalgically romantic Brooklyn, I kept waiting for modernism to creep in and ruin everything. Frankly, there comes a point when that’s poised to happen. But this cinematic tale of one young woman in two contrasting countries plays a neat trick that spins one’s modern expectations.

Audiences should sit back and revel in this version of 1950s New York City’s Brooklyn borough. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. Prepare to be moved, delighted and enchanted.

Brooklyn may be the year’s most enchanting picture, vying for the status with Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella and Todd Haynes’ Carol. In solid, primary colors, music and a rare, classic movie look with the intelligence of Nick Hornby’s (A Long Way Down) screenplay to match, director John Crowley (TV’s True Detective) makes a straightforward character study of an assertive, self-aware Irish Catholic woman (Saorise Ronan in a career breakthrough role). Torn between two worlds, the old and the new, in the middle of the 20th century, she is tested.

A lot happens in her young life in this deceptively epic movie, starting with the bold choice to leave Ireland for America, a choice she comes to doubt in spite of a reason to stay in the person of another, endearingly played by Emory Cohen. Hornby’s writing, based on the novel by Colm Tóibín, is excellent in every scene, with slow, earned development resulting in subtle, emotional and powerful filmmaking. The script is so well constructed that nearly every aspect has a corresponding aspect to contrast old and new. When she comes to America, her color is green. When she returns to Ireland, her color is yellow, yet these colors represent the character’s opposing sense of life in each nation.

This is because this plain, stern, strange-looking girl is ripped between stark, mid-century institutional and cultural choices such as church versus secular, feudalism versus capitalism, collectivism versus individualism. On top of everything that happens—which you barely notice, thanks to Crowley and Hornby—are complicating factors that would confound anyone’s ability to choose: a genuinely kind and entrepreneurial priest, attentive males that let the woman do the talking, fast, crowded and competitive avenues of opportunity and slow, secluded and privileged means of entitlement.

The fundamental choice is between the old and the new.

Brooklyn depicts this alternating, revolving contest between the Emerald Isle and Coney Island. Almost every part pushes her and the audience into an urgent choice between unearned guilt and guiltless joy, the boss who tells you what to do and the boss who helps you become your best, golf and baseball, females who tear you down and females who build you up. Even her maiden voyage to America has a contrasting, companion scene. That all comes together in a way of her own choosing doesn’t lessen the impact of her integration.

But the subtle sentimentality of Brooklyn makes this a rich, colorfully textured exploration and embrace of Americanism which ought to be studied and enjoyed again and again. Whatever her choice or yours, this is a love letter to the New World—and an appreciation for and rejection of the Old World—with the expressive and breathtakingly achieved theme that choosing a country is as simple and exciting as choosing what makes your own character and choosing to think. Evoking the best, not the worst, of America’s past, through the experience of the newcomer—an immigrant—Brooklyn is a grand slam.

Movie Review: Macbeth

Macbeth-Poster-Michael-Fassbender-Character-PosterBleak, dark foreshadowing makes William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth a cautionary tale. This year’s film adaptation, Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs) as Macbeth and Marion Cotillard (Midnight in Paris) as Lady Macbeth is, to paraphrase the play, an exercise in artsy melodrama signifying nothing more than king for a day.

Following a bloody battle in which Macbeth shows his grit, he gets a prophecy from three witches that one day he will become King of Scotland. Amid mumbling and moody lighting and photography with dramatic, grand Scottish landscapes, Macbeth, encouraged to do the dastardly deed by his wife, murders the king Duncan (David Thewlis) and takes the throne. Things quickly go wrong from there as Banquo (Paddy Considine), Malcolm (Jack Reynor) and Macduff (Sean Harris) look on in anger, disgust and vengeance. Fassbender as Macbeth, a tortured, mad man consumed by his own delusions, taunted by the witches, is fine, playing the lead character as stiff, brittle and ready to snap. Cotillard is fine, too, if a bit much in certain scenes. But this Macbeth plays like a Joe Wright adaptation of Tolstoy or Austen, more style than substance, in spite of Shakespeare’s stirring lines about the madness of power lust.

Things get terribly graphic and gory and the fight choreography is jumbled by the quick cuts. Slow motion battle scenes are effective and the play’s best line, delivered by a lead rival in the ashen climax still stings: “I have no words. My voice is in my sword.” I haven’t seen previous movie adaptations but I doubt this one will become the standard bearer and I think the great movie version of this remarkable play has yet to be made. As a story of one of strength and ability who seems to designate himself for doom—a living, spiraling self-fulfilling prophecy—it bears repeating for a world filled with Macbeths.

Movie Review: Spotlight

SpotlightPoster

Church, state and the press form the core of a simple tale set in Boston in what begins in the year of America’s Bicentennial, 1976. The economically written Spotlight does not fully account for, let alone take on, the corrupt Catholic Church on the topic of its systematic conspiracy to sanction priests molesting children, especially boys.

Instead, unlike the universally themed Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), it narrowly focuses upon the role of those who ought to speak out; in this case, the media. Those looking for reckoning, catharsis and moral judgment, which that earlier picture supplies in abundance, rightly condemning an entire country, may be disappointed. In Spotlight, the goal is merely to examine what it means to throw the switch, so to speak, and activate one’s mind to exercise absolute free speech, the basic principle upon which the freedom of the press rests.

Depicting this fundamental choice to think and act by speaking or writing begins with the arrival of an outsider, an unwed Jew named Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber in an outstanding supporting performance) who takes over the stodgy, incestuous newspaper as a top editor, takes stock of the characters and methods of its staff and declares: “We can do better.”

Can they ever. Not only are the Boston Police in on the Catholic child sex conspiracy—and anyone that groans about conspiracy theories should watch this movie—really, the whole city of Boston including its entrenched Baby Boomer journalists are complicit, too.

Telescoping mass Christian acts of injustice into an investigation in the summer of 2001, Spotlight, taken from the name of one of those obscure newspaper sections that few people read, isolates each member of the enterprise team. The movie tracks them, one by one, as they reluctantly or enthusiastically follow leads into the facts of accusations against many of the city’s Catholic priests charged with sexually assaulting boys (and, to a lesser degree, girls).

Among the most eager is a reporter (portrayed by Mark Ruffalo) who tells another journalist when asked that he is “just curious” about a certain fact. Rather than the question being welcomed at this leftist bastion of this leftist city, he is told to “go be curious somewhere else”. Indeed, Spotlight dramatizes that leftist media are antagonistic to the question “Why?” when it applies to their dogma and sacred cows (i.e., the vastly leftist U.S. Catholic Church) and, more to the point, when answering does not have an obvious connection to taking down someone or something prejudged by leftist intellectuals as privileged.

Spotlight doesn’t frame these observations, but scorn and contempt for inquiry and investigation of the Church is evident everywhere in the newsroom, which functions as an extension of the backrooms, hidden booths and secret chambers of the Catholic Church. To this journalist, the basic ethos in this vaunted newspaper (a publication, it must be noted, owned at the time by the New York Times Company) stinks and made me nauseous. Honorable and decent people should be so forewarned. Especially if you are or know someone who was assaulted.

Deep mistrust for media is displayed in a character portrayed by Stanley Tucci (Captain America: The First Avenger, Burlesque, The Hunger Games) who is an attorney, which makes the point stronger. He seems to sense through decades of silence and complicity that the press cannot be counted on to ask, answer and report the truth of this widespread war on boys. In a series of meetings with Ruffalo’s dogged crusader, arcing through the whole movie, he never puts his clients at the full mercy of those he sees as the silent party to the crime.

Another journalist on the team, portrayed by Rachel McAdams (Midnight in Paris, A Most Wanted Man, Aloha), is similarly undaunted by the backlash that ripples across Boston in proportion to the rise of the questions among the investigative staff. Dramatizing that progress is made first by the individual, in decisive steps, the team fans out across the city to canvass and gather facts, compile data, gain records and interview victims and others implicated in what clearly becomes apparent is a big city government-church conspiracy. Spotlight is foremost a procedural plot of bureaucracy, conspiracy and the individual willing to, in heroic editor Baron’s words, “stand alone.”

In fact, given police and judicial complicity, the whole city is a functional half-theocracy, as parishioners, bureaucrats and citizens all but take and follow tacit orders from all the way up to the Vatican. But Spotlight shows how today’s media guards, rather than doubts, the status quo. It’s involving, despite knowing the outcome in advance.

This episodic movie offers an example of an entire population turning the other cheek.

Spotlight leads to the September 2001 attack by religious fundamentalists to mark the film’s tension-packed climax, as the basic conflict between those who silently and, in some cases, explicitly sanction the notion that ignorance is bliss—”People need the church” as a crutch, one admonishes—and those who seek to enlighten come into plain view on opposing sides.

Spotlight shines upon power lust, cronyism, and the insular subculture of those three powerful hierarchies—media, church and state—though, unlike Judgment at Nuremberg, it stops far short of exploring the reasons why some are driven to act against all human decency to deliver innocents into mass abuse and lifelong despair. But one gets the gist, if not the gruesome details and aftermath. For example, one of the cronies confronts the editor leading the team of freethinkers, thoughtfully portrayed by Michael Keaton (Birdman), with a forecast, or veiled threat, of impending professional doom, asking Keaton’s character: “Where are you gonna go?” which in that context means where are you gonna hide if you print the truth?

This is the essence of the evil from which the good man must choose to break away. When you’ve been party to acts of evil then, in the instant that you become aware of the guilt you’ve earned, when you start to think about making amends and seeking forgiveness, the perpetrator lines up to remind you that you’re part of the problem. Do you give in or break off and, in Spike Lee’s words, do the right thing?

With a terrific supporting cast and sterling turns by Keaton, Ruffalo, McAdams and Tucci and, in particular, Schreiber as the fountainhead of pursuing truth, Spotlight illuminates what informs, and only what informs, the guilty’s choice to name, face and defeat evil. In the most rewarding scene, with a poignant theme of setting things right when you’ve let things go wrong, two men meet on Sunday as the holiest day of all—not to pray, but to produce, with reverence for the truth, not falsehood, as sacred.